Chinese figure skaters: built to Lutz and built to last
The Chinese figure skating veterans won bronze in the pairs event at the last two Winter Olympics, then retired. But after two years they came back with one, clear goal: win an Olympic gold medal.
Now they have achieved that objective. The husband and wife team were last to go in the free skate, making some small errors in their routine, but their storming short programme score from Sunday proved enough to earn them gold at the third time of asking.
Their almost robotic ability to deliver the goods under intense pressure here in Vancouver is remarkable enough. But it is their ages which grab headlines. Zhao is 36 and Shen is 31. They simply should not be international figure skaters at that age, certainly not Olympic gold medal winners.
As I discovered while speaking to their fellow competitors during Monday's competition, their presence is simultaneously the most daunting prospect and most valuable inspiration of these Games.
For Canadian skater Jessica Dubé, whose ambitions of lighting up home ice alongside partner Bryce Davison were shattered by a couple of stumbles, Shen and Zhao aren't rivals. They are people she aspires to become.
"We're so young," the 22-year-old, who finished sixth, told me. "When we see them competing and being amazing like they are, it gives us hope. We know we have a lot more in front of us, we'll take that one as an experience and learn from it."
At last - Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo taste the gold they came out of retirement to win. Photo: AP
Anabelle Langlois, also Canadian and ninth-placed, agreed with Dubé.
"It is amazing what they do, but it doesn't amaze me that they can do it," said Langlois, who, at 28, is still three years younger than Shen. "They are outstanding skaters and incredible athletes. If anybody could do it, then I'd have full faith in them. I love watching them and I'm glad we all have a chance to see them skating still."
But ask those left trailing in Shen and Zhao's wake if they expect to carry on competing as long, and you start to see the whites of their eyes. It is such a tough ask, which makes it all the more surprising that China delivered not one but two sets of 30-something figure skaters into the Vancouver medals: Pang Qing and Tong Jian, both 30, took silver.
"I'm an American football fan and Brett Favre did very well for my home team, the Minnesota Vikings, this year," explained American skater Mark Ladwig, who crept into the top 10 alongside Amanda Evora.
"People of any age can do it as long as they've got the skills, and Shen and Zhao were already great skaters.
"They didn't retire and sit in Tahiti, they were out on the circuit doing shows and performing, and that's ice skating. It's not just about doing tricks. We've really been trying to elevate and meet Shen and Zhao."
So has everybody else. Ever since they returned from their two-year absence, the duo have cut a merciless streak as they followed their gold-medal mission. But Ladwig's point that skating is "not just tricks" is instructive.
For as long as figure skating has appeared at the Winter Olympics - it made its debut in London in 1908 - people have questioned whether it is a sport. During Monday's competition, for example, somebody sent me a tweet saying "anything accompanied by music is not sport".
Try telling that to the freestyle skiers, who head down their slope to music, for a start. But it beggars belief that some people can't see why this is a sport. The sheer strength required, the stamina, the precision execution, the agility and flexibility... I've seen plenty of footballers who were far poorer excuses for athletes than the figure skaters on show here.
British pair Stacey Kemp and David King, for example, rehearse their lifts up to 500 times a week off the ice, let alone on it. Over the summer season, they were running up to 18km a day, such is the level of physical fitness they need to reach an Olympics, let alone win a medal.
"Tonight we made a few little mistakes, but I'm happy with that. That was an Olympic performance," King, 25, told me after the competition had ended and their finishing position of 16th on their Olympic debut had been confirmed.
"It was close to perfect for us. The lifts all went pretty much as well as we can do them, which is great because, at the end of the programme, when you're tired and fatigued it's very hard to get the lifts flowing with speed and looking good.
"The harder points were shaky landings on the side-by-side jumps and the last throw (which they didn't quite land). We put that throw in at the end because you get more points for doing it later in the programme, but it means you're really tired."
British fans of winter sports should get used to the phrase "good experience" at the Vancouver Games, because many of the 52 Team GB athletes here simply stand no chance of a medal.
That was the case with King and Kemp. They left Britain knowing the Olympics was a big deal and that the top 10 was probably beyond their grasp. But they didn't realise quite what a berth alongside the likes of Shen and Zhao, with all the Chinese pair represent, meant until they got here.
"We were kind of expecting the World Championships, but with more people in the Olympic village," said King. "It's just totally different. There is so much pressure on all the skaters to do well. We were warming up and they announced that 300,000,000 people were watching on TV. We were like, 'Oh, OK! Let's forget about that'.
"The Chinese pair came back just for this one event, the rest they did as a preparation. We were training with them all week and we got to know them quite well. They're as happy to be here as we are and they're just nice people.
"They are genuine people and they put in the work. They must have done about 10 Olympics now, and they deserve this. It shows us we could do three more Olympics now. If we get a medal out of one of them, it'd be a dream."
Shen and Zhao have finally realised their Olympic dream. It has been some wait, and a remarkable comeback, to land that gold, ending 46 years of Russian domination in the event (though Canada shared a gold with Russia after a judging controversy in 2002).
"They are my inspiration," concluded 25-year-old American rival Evora. "In the US Nationals, I may be one of the older ladies, but to see Shen and Zhao, I know I'm capable of going on. Here they are after all these years. Now I know what it means to be an Olympian: it's a lifetime of sacrifice, a lifetime of hard work."